We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Famously begins the Declaration of Independence, signed by representatives of the American colonies on July 4, 1776. Sometimes, I think, it seems we have strayed pretty far from the ideals found in this wonderful document. Just that first sentence says a lot about who our forefathers wanted us to be: it acknowledges the Creator God who gives people a dignity and rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These rights must still be vigorously defended today.
The right to life seems like a no-brainer. But as our society has become more complex, the right to life has been somewhat blurred. When does life begin? What lives need to be protected? The Church, of course, calls for a vigorous defense of life at every stage from conception to natural death. That means abortion is wrong, embryonic stem-cell research is wrong, euthanasia is wrong. These convictions make for difficult conversations, but life is and always will be a basic human right.
The right to liberty is similarly blurred in today’s society. Nobody wants anything to infringe on their freedoms. And nothing should. But being free people doesn’t mean that we’re free to do whatever we want. Our freedom cannot, for example, impinge on the freedom of another person. Our freedom cannot allow us to harm another person. Saint Paul says that “for freedom, Christ has set us free.” Our freedom has a purpose, and that purpose is that we can then freely choose Christ, freely choose God, freely choose love. None of that happens in a coerced way. Freely choosing God means that we must be willing to freely choose all that that choice entails, without threat of harm from another.
And finally there is the pursuit of happiness. We Christians believe that happiness will never be perfectly obtained in this life. We long for the happiness of the kingdom of God, that place we were made for in the first place. We have the right to pursue reasonable happiness in this life, and we have a right to exercise the means to pursue the most excellent happiness of the world to come.
We Catholics teach that with all these rights come responsibilities. We have a responsibility to protect the rights of others, to keep our nation from harm, to work for lasting peace in the world. Toward that end, we are mindful and grateful of the work so many have done to secure our rights and freedoms, both those who have gone before us and those still fighting wars today. In our prayer, we long for the day when war will be no more, and the peace that is the presence of Christ will rule over a world still in need of the perfection of life, liberty and happiness.
In the last line of the Declaration, our forefathers pledged themselves to the great task of building a nation based on these inalienable rights: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” May we always make the same pledge that our nation may always be great.